Why Apple’s position matters on strong iPhone encryption

Apple popped up in the news this week after both U.S. Attorney General William Barr and President Trump publicly called for the company to help unlock iPhones used by the Saudi Air Force cadet accused of perpetrating a terror attack on a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, FL in December. Apple’s pushing back, and make no mistake: Your privacy is on the line here. iPhone encryption should matter to all of us.

The Feds have been turning up the heat on Apple to get them to unlock two iPhones reportedly used by Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the gunman who was killed in December in a shootout with law enforcement after gunning down three Naval cadets and eight others. Government investigators believe there may be encrypted content on the phones not available via other means.

Earlier this month, the FBI told Apple it wanted the phones unlocked. Earlier this week U.S. Attorney General William Barr publicly excoriated Apple for failing to offer “substantive assistance” to unlock the phones.

Apple said no, but not before noting that, contrary to Barr’s suggestion, the company has fully cooperated with legal requests to date and has provided the Bureau with gigabytes of data related to Alshamrani’s iCloud account. What the company has not done, however, is unlock the phones. One of them is reportedly physically damaged and the other is locked with a passcode. Apple, for its part, says that it’s not holding out – it just doesn’t have the means to do so:

We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys. Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.

That wasn’t good enough. President Trump waded into the controversy with a tweet, implying that Apple owed the U.S. government for favorable trade deals and that it needed to “step up to the plate” by unlocking these phones. A favor for a favor. Or, in other words, a quid pro quo.

Strongarm tactics in the public domain aside, it’s doubtful Apple will acquiesce to the government’s demands, especially if we can divine Apple’s future actions based on its past.

Because in 2016 a similar case happened, when Apple defied a court order to unlock the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook. The DOJ later vacated the request after it purchased a commercial product that enabled it to unlock the iPhone.

Expecting Apple to reverse its direction after public statements from politicians is patently ridiculous. The company has maintained customer privacy and data safety as a cornerstone of its marketing message in recent years. Apple’s focus on privacy and data protection has infiltrated just about every aspect of the company’s operations.

The company maintains a privacy area on its web site in which it identifies features of its products designed for privacy, offers info about how customers can control what data is shared, and even details on the government requests like this which it receives.

To be certain, Apple isn’t the only major consumer tech company that says it takes the privacy of its customers seriously. But Apple’s the most transparent and open about what it’s doing to actually protect its customers. For Apple to back down now would cause irreparable harm to the company’s brand and identity.

Earlier this month, Apple’s director of global privacy Jane Horvath spoke at a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Horvath noted that iPhone encryption helps makes sure that customer data stays safe:

Our phones are relatively small and they get lost and stolen. If we’re going to be able to rely on our health data and finance data on our devices, we need to make sure that if you misplace that device, you’re not losing your sensitive data

The occasional edge case with a terrorist or criminal aside, Apple’s responsible for keeping safe the data of hundreds of millions of other people who are living their life within the law, with a reasonable expectation of privacy. Apple’s use of strong iPhone encryption makes that possible.

The government’s expectations that Apple should give them privileged access to a device – and thus damage the potential safety of security of everyone else in the process – is simply unreasonable.

What do you think? Is Apple right here? Or does the FBI have a valid case to make? LEt me know what you think in the comments.